11 Historical Geniuses and Their Possible Mental Disorders

Warren, Henry F., Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Warren, Henry F., Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Studies have shown that there are much higher instances of mental disorder in political leaders and creative geniuses than in the general population. And while it's impossible to be completely sure of a correct diagnosis of a historical figure, that hasn't stopped researchers from making educated guesses. Here's a speculative look at the mental health of 11 of history's big thinkers.

1. ABRAHAM LINCOLN // DEPRESSION

The Great Emancipator managed to lead the country through one of its more trying times, despite suffering from severe depression most of his life. According to one Lincoln biographer, letters left by the president's friends referred to him as "the most depressed person they've ever seen." On at least one occasion, he was so overcome with "melancholy" that he collapsed. Both his mother and numerous members of his father's family exhibited similar symptoms of severe depression, indicating he was probably biologically susceptible to the illness. Lincoln is even assumed to be the author of a poem published in 1838, "The Suicide's Soliloquy," which contains the lines:

Hell! What is hell to one like me
Who pleasures never knew;
By friends consigned to misery,
By hope deserted too?

2. LUDWIG VON BEETHOVEN // BIPOLAR DISORDER

When the composer died of liver failure in 1827, he had been self-medicating his many health problems with alcohol for decades. Sadly, much of what he may have suffered from probably could have been managed with today's medications, including a serious case of bipolar disorder. Beethoven's fits of mania were well known in his circle of friends, and when he was on a high he could compose numerous works at once. It was during his down periods that many of his most celebrated works were written. Sadly, that was also when he contemplated suicide, as he told his brothers in letters throughout his life. During the early part of 1813 he went through such a depressive period that he stopped caring about his appearance, and would fly into rages during dinner parties. He also stopped composing almost completely during that time.

3. EDVARD MUNCH // PANIC ATTACKS

The world's most famous panic attack occurred in Olso during January 1892. Munch recorded the episode in his diary:

"One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature."

This experience affected the artist so deeply he returned to the moment again and again, eventually making two paintings, two pastels, and a lithograph based on his experience, as well as penning a poem derived from the diary entry. While it isn't known if Munch had any more panic attacks, mental illness did run in his family; at the time of his episode, his bipolar sister was in an asylum.

4. MICHELANGELO // AUTISM

You might have wondered in the past just how someone could paint something as huge as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. According to a paper published in the Journal of Medical Biography in 2004, Michelangelo's single-minded routine may have been due to the disorder. According to descriptions by his contemporaries, the painter was "preoccupied with his own reality." Most of the male members of his family are recorded to have exhibited similar symptoms. Michelangelo also seems to have had difficulty forming relationships with people; he had few friends and didn't even attend his brother's funeral. All of this, combined with his obvious genius in math and art, led the researchers to believe that today Michelangelo would be considered high functioning on the autism spectrum.

5. CHARLES DICKENS // DEPRESSION

By his early 30s, Dickens was the most famous author in the world. He was wealthy and seemed to have it all. But after an unbelievably difficult childhood, which saw the author working in a boot factory and living on his own when his father was thrown in prison, Dickens would start falling into depressions with the start of each new novel. The first one to cause him problems was one of his lesser-known works, The Chimes, in 1844. After that, Dickens' friends wrote that he became down every time he set to work on a new project, but that his mood would gradually lift until he was in a kind of mania by the time he finished. His depression worsened with age, and he eventually separated from his wife—the mother of his 10 children—to live with an 18-year-old actress. After he was involved in a train crash four years before his death, in which he was uninjured but was forced to assist dying passengers before help came, his depression seems to have finally staunched his creativity, and his previously prolific output virtually ceased.

6. CHARLES DARWIN // AGORAPHOBIA

Scholars still debate just exactly what problems Darwin suffered from, but whatever they were, they were serious. Despite his famed five year voyage on the Beagle (and the publication it led to) making his career, Darwin was virtually incapacitated the entire time. While he concentrated on his physical symptoms as the cause of all his suffering, the constant trembling, nausea, hysterical crying, and visual hallucinations (among other things) seem to have been mostly caused by a severe case of agoraphobia that kept him virtually bedridden from the time he turned 30. Darwin's fear of people meant he would even avoid conversations with his own children, writing, "I am forced to live… very quietly and am able to see scarcely anybody and cannot even talk long with my nearest relations." In at least one letter he mentions feeling like committing suicide due to the publication of On the Origin of Species, the controversy over which caused him much distress. He may have also suffered from OCD and hypochondria, as he kept meticulous records of every new or recurring symptom.

7. WINSTON CHURCHILL // BIPOLAR DISORDER

Like Lincoln, Churchill was a great leader dealing not only with international strife but his own mental struggles at the same time. In his 30s, he complained to his friends that he was hounded by the "black dog of depression." He sat in the Houses of Parliament and contemplated suicide. Churchill told his doctor that he had to be careful where he stood in a train station:

"I don't like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through," he told his doctor. "I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don't like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second's action would end everything. A few drops of desperation."

The black dog would follow him the rest of his life. When in his mild manic phases he was personable, but his moods could change quickly. During periods of high mania he would stay up all night writing, eventually producing 43 books on top of attending to his political duties.

8. VASLAV NIJINSKY // SCHIZOPHRENIA

While not well-known today, in the early 1900s, Nijinsky was a household name. Considered the greatest male dancer of his era, he was famous for his intense performances, gigantic leaps, and ability to dance on his toes (en pointe), something uncommon among male dancers at the time. When he took to choreographing ballets, his modern take on the dance led to a riot. By the time Nijinsky was 26, the symptoms of his disease were affecting his work. He spent the rest of his life in and out of mental hospitals, often going weeks at a time without saying a word.

9. KURT GÖDEL // PERSECUTORY DELUSIONS

Gödel was a brilliant logician and mathematician, as well as a contemporary and great friend of Albert Einstein. Einstein's super-intelligence might have made him seem a little odd to the average person, but he doesn't seem to have suffered from any actual mental illnesses. Gödel, on the other hand, thought that someone was out to poison him. He was so sure of this delusion, especially later in life, that he would only eat food that his wife had cooked, and usually made her taste it first, just to be sure. When his wife was hospitalized for six months, Gödel stopped eating and starved to death.

10. LEO TOLSTOY // DEPRESSION

Tolstoy did not suffer from obvious signs of depression until middle age, but when it hit him, it hit hard. He went through serious personality changes, questioning virtually everything in his life. At times he debated giving away all of his possessions, becoming celibate, and the nature of his religious beliefs (or lack thereof). At one point he was determined to give up writing altogether, saying, "art is not only useless but even harmful." Tolstoy is a perfect example of someone who seemingly has everything brought low by this disease: despite coming from a wealthy family, being celebrated as an author, and being father to 13 children, eventually his demons drove him to seriously consider suicide. He wrote in one letter, "The possibility of killing himself has been given to man, and therefore he may kill himself." Eventually Tolstoy pulled himself out of this hole by becoming what we would now consider a born-again Christian.

11. ISSAC NEWTON // BIPOLAR, AUTISM, SCHIZOPHRENIA

One of the greatest scientists of all time is also the hardest genius to diagnose, but historians agree he had a lot going on. Newton suffered from huge ups and downs in his moods, indicating bipolar disorder, combined with psychotic tendencies. His inability to connect with people could place him on the autism spectrum. He also had a tendency to write letters filled with mad delusions, which some medical historians feel strongly indicates schizophrenia. Whether he suffered from one or a combination of these serious illnesses, they did not stop him from inventing calculus, explaining gravity, and building telescopes, among his other great scientific achievements.

How Thomas Jefferson's Obsession With Mastodons Partly Fueled the Lewis and Clark Expedition

James St. John, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
James St. John, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

By the 1800s, American mastodons—prehistoric relatives of the elephant—had been extinct for roughly 10,000 years. Thomas Jefferson didn’t know that, though. The Founding Father dreamed of finding a living, breathing mastodon in America, and this lofty goal ended up being a motivating force throughout much of his life. Even during the Revolutionary War, and even when he ran for the highest office in the land, he had mastodons on the mind. Jefferson was convinced that the hairy beasts still roamed the continent, probably somewhere on the uncharted western frontier, and he was determined to find them—or, at the very least, enlist a couple of intrepid explorers by the names of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to do the hunting on his behalf.

The Corps of Discovery departed from St. Louis on May 14, 1804 and headed into the great unknown of the Louisiana Purchase in search of an all-water route to the Pacific. The adventurers made many discoveries on the two-and-a-half-year round trip—mapping the geography of the region and logging hundreds of species of flora and fauna unknown to science—but the directive to look for mastodons is a little-known footnote to their famous expedition.

At the start of their trip, Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for “the remains and accounts of any [animal] which may be deemed rare or extinct.” Although he didn’t mention mastodons specifically—at least not in any of the written correspondence on record—the two explorers were all too familiar with Jefferson’s mammoth ambition. “Surely Jefferson still had the M-word in mind, and surely Lewis knew it,” author Robert A. Saindon writes in Explorations Into the World of Lewis and Clark, Volume 2.

Jefferson had long been interested in paleontology, but his mastodon obsession was fueled by a longstanding beef he had with a French naturalist who thought America’s animals and people were puny. Jefferson’s bone-collecting hobby quickly evolved into a mission to assert America’s dominance in the Western world and prove that it was "a land full of big and beautiful things," as journalist Jon Mooallem put it in his book, Wild Ones. Indeed, there are worse ways to become a political and cultural heavyweight than to prove your country is home to a 12,000-pound monster.

A Rivalry Forms

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

François-Hubert Drouais, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

For much of his adult life, Jefferson was an avid collector of fossils and bones. At various points in time, he owned a bison fossil, elk and moose antlers, giant ground sloth fossils, and naturally, a number of mastodon bones.

Though his original interest may have been purely academic, Jefferson's exposure to the writings of French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon fanned the flames of his obsession. Buffon’s “Theory of American Degeneracy,” published in the 1760s, postulated that the people and animals of America were small and weak because the climate (he assumed, without much evidence) was too cold and wet to encourage growth.

Jefferson was furious. He formulated a rebuttal, which partly drew attention to the inconsistencies in Buffon's beliefs about the mastodon. Buffon suggested that the American mastodon was a combination of elephant and hippopotamus bones, but because Jefferson had inspected the bones, he knew that the measurements didn't match those of previously known species. Instead, Jefferson argued that the bones belonged to a different animal entirely. (Although they’re distinct species, woolly mammoths and mastodons were lumped into the same category at the time, and were called one of two names: mammoths or the American incognitum.)

“The skeleton of the mammoth … bespeaks an animal of five or six times the cubic volume of the elephant,” Jefferson wrote. He later scaled back his argument a bit, adding, “But to whatever animal we ascribe these remains, it is certain such a one has existed in America, and that it has been the largest of all terrestrial beings.”

He didn’t just believe that mastodons had existed at one point in time, though—he believed they were still out there somewhere. It wasn’t unusual for thinkers and scientists of Jefferson's era to assume that bones were evidence of a still-living species. After all, dinosaurs had not yet been discovered (though their bones had been found, no one would call them dinosaurs until the early 19th century), and the concept of extinction wasn’t widely accepted or understood. Dominant religious beliefs also reinforced the idea that God’s creations couldn't be destroyed.

For his part, Jefferson believed that animals fell into a natural order, and that removing a link in “nature’s chain” would throw the whole system into disarray. Taking the tone of a philosopher, he once questioned, “It may be asked, why I insert the Mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist?”

This position may have been partly fueled by wishful thinking. Jefferson believed that tracking down a living mastodon would be the most satisfying way to stick it to Buffon and say, “I told you so.” (In the meantime, though, he had to settle for a dead moose, which he sent overseas to the Frenchman’s doorstep in Paris to prove that large animals did, in fact, exist in America.)

The Hunt Continues

A painting of The Exhumation of the Mastadon

This 1806 painting by Charles Willson Peale, titled The Exhumation of the Mastadon, shows mastodon bones being excavated from a water-filled pit.

Charles Willson Peale, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

In late 1781, Jefferson wrote to his buddy George Rogers Clark in the Ohio valley and asked him to fetch some mastodon teeth from a nearby "mastodon boneyard" in northern Kentucky called Big Bone Lick. “Were it possible to get a tooth of each kind, that is to say a foretooth, grinder, &c, it would particularly oblige me,” Jefferson wrote. Clark politely explained that the possibility of Native American attacks made this task impossible, but he was able to procure a thighbone, jaw bone, grinder, and tusk from travelers who had managed to visit the frontier.

However, Jefferson didn’t receive Clark's reply until six months later in August 1782 (because of, you know, the Revolutionary War). Although the war technically didn't end until the following year, peace talks between the two sides were nearing a conclusion, and everybody knew it. With an end to the conflict in sight, Jefferson doubled down on his request for mastodon bones. He wrote to Clark, “A specimen of each of the several species of bones now to be found is to me the most desireable object in Natural History, and there is no expence of package or of safe transportation which I will not gladly reimburse to procure them safely.”

Later, while serving as America’s first Secretary of State, Jefferson supported a proposed Western exploration that would have preceded the Lewis and Clark expedition. Before the expedition was called off, Jefferson had instructed the would-be explorer, French botanist André Michaux, to look for mastodons along the way. He wrote to Michaux in 1793, “Under the head of Animal history, that of the Mammoth is particularly recommended to your enquiries.”

Even when Jefferson turned his attention to national politics and ran for president against incumbent John Adams in 1800, he was still thinking about mastodons. His preoccupations were so widely known that his opponents, the Federalists, called him a “mammoth infidel” in reference to his unusual hobby and supposed secular leanings. As an 1885 article in the Magazine of American History recalled, “When Congress was vainly trying to untangle the difficulties arising from the tie vote between Jefferson and [Aaron] Burr, when every politician at the capital was busy with schemes and counter-schemes, this man, whose political fate was balanced on a razor’s edge, was corresponding with [physician and professor] Dr. [Caspar] Wistar in regard to some bones of the mammoth which he had just procured from Shawangunk, Ulster County.”

Once president, Jefferson used his office to further the field of paleontology. Not long after he was elected, he loaned one of the Navy’s pumps to artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale, who wanted to extract a pile of freshly unearthed mastodon bones from a water-filled pit. It ultimately became the first fossilized skeleton to ever be assembled in America.

Of course, there is also evidence that Jefferson silently hoped Lewis and Clark would stumble upon a living mastodon during their expedition, which formally kicked off in 1804 and ended in 1806. That, as we now know, was impossible. After their return, Jefferson sent William Clark on a second assignment to collect artifacts from Big Bone Lick. He sent three big boxes of bones back to Jefferson, who got to work unloading and studying them in the East Room of the White House—the same room where John and Abigail Adams once hung their laundry.

Still, something wasn’t quite right, and Jefferson may have known it even then. By 1809, the animal in question had been identified and given the name mastodon, and Jefferson started to reverse some of his previously held opinions. In a letter to William Clark, he conceded that the mastodon was not a carnivore, as he once believed, but an herbivore. "Nature seems not to have provided other food sufficient for him," he wrote, "and the limb of a tree would be no more to him than a bough of cotton tree to a horse."

Accepting the Mastodon’s Fate

Thomas Jefferson
National Archive/Newsmakers

The fact that Lewis and Clark never spotted any giants roaming out West may have helped Jefferson accept the inevitable: Mastodons had gone extinct long ago. Waxing poetic in a letter to John Adams in 1823, Jefferson wrote, “Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos.”

Although he was unsuccessful in his quest to find a living mastodon, Jefferson made other meaningful contributions to the field of paleontology. The fossils of another mysterious creature he believed to be a lion were later revealed to be that of a giant ground sloth. He named it Megalonyx (Greek for “great claw”), and in 1822, the extinct creature was renamed Megalonyx jeffersonii in Jefferson’s honor.

Nowadays, the ground sloth fossils—and several other items that formed the "cabinet of curiosities" Jefferson displayed at his Monticello estate—are part of The Academy of Natural Science collection at Drexel University. Considering that Jefferson is sometimes called "the founder of North American paleontology,” it would appear he got his revenge against Buffon after all.

CBS Is Live-Streaming Its 1969 Coverage of the Apollo 11 Launch Right Now on YouTube

The Saturn V rocket lifts off with the Apollo 11 mission on July 16, 1969.
The Saturn V rocket lifts off with the Apollo 11 mission on July 16, 1969.
NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Today is the 50th anniversary of the July 16, 1969 launch of the Apollo 11 mission, which resulted in the first Moon landing in history. CBS News is commemorating the momentous event with a YouTube live stream of its special coverage from that day, which you can watch below.

CBS anchor Walter Cronkite brought all the thrill and wonder of the takeoff into the homes of countless Americans, and he also introduced them to three soon-to-be-famous astronauts: former Navy pilot Neil Armstrong, Air Force colonel Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and former Air Force fighter pilot (and experimental test pilot) Michael Collins.

Cronkite chronicled the astronauts’ journey from their 4:15 a.m. breakfast at the command space center to Kennedy Space Center’s launch station 39A, where they boarded the Saturn V rocket. CBS sports commentator Heywood Hale Broun reported from the Florida beach itself, interviewing spectators who were hoping to witness history happen in real time. “I just hope they make it successfully and have no problem," said a visitor from California.

In the final seconds before liftoff, Cronkite counted down, not knowing what the future of the mission would hold.

Tune into the live stream below, or check out the highlights from CBS News here.

[h/t CBS News]

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